Sunday, November 1, 2009

Evil Isn't Banal

Ron Rosenbaum (author of, among others, Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil), has read some interesting research efforts about Hannah Arendt and her relationship to Heidegger, on the one hand, and the Jews, on the other. Rosenbaum is always worth your time, and this review isn't even particularly long, so I recommend it in its' entirety. My paraphrasing: Arendt preferred Heidigger the Nazi over her fellow Jews, and this warped her understanding of the world. Since she's one of the most influential intellectual figures of the 20th century, and remains important to this very day, this is no small problem.
Wasserstein believes she internalized anti-Semitic literature; I would perhaps modify this to say she internalized the purported universalism of Germanic high culture with its disdain for parochialism. A parochialism she identified with, in her own case, her Jewishness, something she felt ashamed of on intellectual grounds, so primitive, this tribal allegiance in the presence of intellects who supposedly transcended tribalism (or at least all tribes except the Teutonic). One can still hear this Arendtian shame about ethnicity these days. So parochial! One can hear the echo of Arendt's fear of being judged as "merely Jewish" in some, not all, of those Jews so eager to dissociate themselves from the parochial concerns of other Jews for Israel. The desire for universalist approval makes them so disdainful of any "ethnic" fellow feeling. After all, to such unfettered spirits, it's so banal.

Apropos her Banality of Evil thesis, allow me a wee bit of preening. Back in the mid-1980s, after I had read her Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Penguin Classics) three or four times and was utterly convinced of its profound truth, I set out to bolster her arguments with a close look at all the documentation Eichmann and his colleagues left. To my great surprise, it turned out the documents resoundingly disproved her thesis, and this eventually formed the conceptual framework for my first book, Hitler's Bureaucrats: The Nazi Security Police And The Banality Of Evil (Continuum Guide in the Third Reich). I have no idea if Rosenbaum ever read my book or not, but he summarizes the matter well:
To my mind, the use of the phrase banality of evil is an almost infallible sign of shallow thinkers attempting to seem intellectually sophisticated. Come on, people: It's a bankrupt phrase, a subprime phrase, a Dr. Phil-level phrase masquerading as a profound contrarianism. Oooh, so daring! Evil comes not only in the form of mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash types, but in the form of paper pushers who followed evil orders. And when applied—as she originally did to Adolf Eichmann, Hitler's eager executioner, responsible for the logistics of the Final Solution—the phrase was utterly fraudulent.

Adolf Eichmann was, of course, in no way a banal bureaucrat: He just portrayed himself as one while on trial for his life. Eichmann was a vicious and loathsome Jew-hater and -hunter who, among other things, personally intervened after the war was effectively lost, to insist on and ensure the mass murder of the last intact Jewish group in Europe, those of Hungary. So the phrase was wrong in its origin, as applied to Eichmann, and wrong in almost all subsequent cases when applied generally. Wrong and self-contradictory, linguistically, philosophically, and metaphorically. Either one knows what one is doing is evil or one does not. If one knows and does it anyway, one is evil, not some special subcategory of evil. If one doesn't know, one is ignorant, and not evil. But genuine ignorance is rare when evil is going on.


(h/t Goldblog)


Victor said...


Jay Michaelson has followed up his previous "I'm too tired to support Israel" article with "Love Is Not Blindness".

Do you notice how the instant those who criticize Israel are themselves criticized they start claiming they're being muzzled? Wasn't the point of his first article to "open debate"? What do people like Michaelson think debate means, exactly?

And how is it that Michaelson never cried out against the radical left muzzling him? After all, isn't their persistent harassment the reason he got so tired of supporting Israel in the first place?

Against the radical left, Michaelson has lost the will to fight for Israel. Against pro-Israel Americans, his fight is strengthening.

Soccer Dad said...

I understand that Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil" was something of a platitude. Still it was impossible not to thing of it when reading the beginning of Avner Less's "Interrogating Eichmann:"

I saw Adolf Eichmann for the first time at about 4:45 p.m. on May 29, 1960. Colonel Hofstaetter (my immediate superior) and I had sent for him to be brought to the room where the hearings were to take place. We waited in a state of acute tension; even the colonel, ordinarily a model of self-restraint, was unable to conceal his nervousness. My first reaction when the prisoner finally stood facing us in khaki shirt and trousers and open sandals was one of disappointment. I no longer know what I had expected—probably the sort of Nazi you see in the movies: tall, blond, with piercing blue eyes and brutal features expressive of domineering arrogance. Whereas this rather thin, balding man not much taller than myself looked utterly ordinary. The very normality of his appearance gave his dispassionate testimony an even more depressing impact than I had expected after examining the documents.

Yaacov said...

Yes, that was part of Arendt's problem: that she mistook the balding nonentity on trial for the lord of evil he had once been. Since she had seen Nazism from close up when it was reality, not an abstraction, she should have known better.

Anonymous said...

The point of the phrase "banality of evil" is to universalize the condition.

Each of us, to the extent that we participate unquestioningly in something, particularly in something that is directed at a state level by people whose morals are completely opaque to us, may be participating in evil.

I never felt that Arendt was trying to excuse evil but to warn of the ease with which it can penetrate into human systems.

Maybe she was wrong about Eichmann. If so, she acted irresponsibly as a journalist in covering his story. But as a philosopher I think she framed a basic truth and gave it a name, helping the world remember it. Great crimes of dehumanization are carried out by organizations of people who must themselves be dehumanized to participate. Of course there are also real monsters in the chain of command, such as Eichmann. But the lesson is that each individual has to guard his own humanity and conscience.

If the rest of the world took the lesson to heart as clearly as the IDF has, we'd have better world.

volchan said...

There is a book by David Cesarani,
"Becoming Eichmann, Reviewing the life,
crimes and trial of a desk murderer" which
seems to be very critical of Arendt's approach (I haven't read it on
my waiting list).

Gavin said...

This comment from Rosenbaum has been nagging away at me Yaacov, I usually avoid philosophical arguments like the plague but will rise to the bait here;

"Either one knows what one is doing is evil or one does not. If one knows and does it anyway, one is evil, not some special subcategory of evil. If one doesn't know, one is ignorant, and not evil. But genuine ignorance is rare when evil is going on."

It imputes a definition & universality to evil, when evil is an abstract to many people. The thought patterns of people like Eichman would have run along the lines of "Jews are evil, therefore ridding the world of Jews is good" Hizbollah & Hamas, Iran & Syria, they don't think killing Jews is evil. Ignorance is rife, not rare, when evil is going on. That's not to excuse or mitigate it, rather illustrate the complexity of the dichotomy that's good/evil.

I find it troubling that the acts of the Nazis et al can be passed off as a simplistic view that they knew what were doing was evil but did it anyway. If only life were that easy. Rosenbaum was pretty sneering & dismissive of Arendt but some of his thinking seems a bit shallow too.

Regards, Gavin.